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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21376

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (8:14 PM) —That was a riveting contribution! You have to wonder what students have done to the Howard government to deserve the kind of treatment they are getting now. It is absolutely extraordinary the way in which students and their families have been hit with staggering fee hikes by this government. They have been forced to make up for this government's $5 billion in cuts to our universities since 1996. The government says, `That's fine. Students can pay—students can make it up.' Indeed, student debt has more than doubled under the Howard government; it has blown out to more than $9 million. As a result of this, under the Howard government cost has become a barrier to university education and our young graduates now will spend a large part of their working lives weighed down by a massive debt.

Things are bad enough already, but the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2003 are a licence to make things worse. They set out an entitlement for universities to increase their HECS fees by 30 per cent. This will mean huge HECS debts of up to $50,000. An arts degree could cost $15,000, a science degree $21,000 and a law degree $41,000. Of course, if a student wants to do a combined degree or an honours year, they will have to pay even more. The Howard government's new fee hikes could see a situation where average student contributions have more than doubled since 1996. Some courses, like law and veterinary science, could increase by more than 240 per cent.

But there is good news, because Labor will not support any measures to increase fees for Australian students or their families. In my book, education is not about how much money your parents have; it is about merit. I have always supported those who have advocated merit as the sole criterion; indeed, I have supported proposals for examinations and tough, independent assessments of students to ensure that merit is the criterion. It is outrageous to seek to move away from merit towards an American-style system where it is money, rather than marks, which opens university doors.

Since 1998, full fee payers have been able to buy a university place ahead of people with higher marks. Degrees at a cost as high as $150,000 are available to those who can afford them. At the University of Sydney, a full fee law degree costs $85,000. At the University of Queensland, a full fee veterinary science degree costs $144,000. A full fee medical degree at the University of Melbourne costs $150,000, according to the vice-chancellor there. Australian students should not have to pay exorbitant fees to buy a university place. One of the reasons why I advance that contention is that it is essential to Australia's ongoing national prosperity that we have a well-educated nation. Robert Reich, who wrote The Work of Nations, said that, in this day and age, it is not your primary products, raw resources and things of that nature which determine whether you will be successful or not as a nation but the skills of your work force—their level of education, their level of training and the intellectual capital that they are able to contribute. Given that, we are mugs if we do not do everything we possibly can to encourage tertiary education and qualifications. All Australian citizens should have an equal opportunity to get into university based on ability. No Australian should be given preference simply because they can pay more.

I have heard the government argue that, because full fee places are available to overseas students, it amounts to discrimination against Australian students if they are not given what is described euphemistically as `the same opportunity'. This is not about getting the same opportunity; Australian students are entitled to better than those overseas students, and we believe that access to university should be based on achievement and potential, not on how much a person or their family can pay.

The government want to increase the number of full fee places so that half of all university places could go to people who buy their way in. It is their conviction—it is clearly their policy—that the only way we are going to get an expansion of the tertiary system is via full fee places. So the places which are supported by the community will decline in significance and fee paying places will increase in significance. That means more university places reserved for the wealthy and more $100,000-plus degrees. To accompany that, the government want to introduce a loan scheme, with a six per cent interest rate, to encourage more Australians to pay full fees. That will mean that someone studying, for example, a specialist nursing degree, could have to pay $4,300 in interest alone, over and above their other costs. Labor will restore merit as the only criterion for getting a university place, Labor will abolish full fees for Australian undergraduates and Labor will abolish the real interest rate on postgraduate loans.

As well as an increased load on students, we have falling investment and threats to standards. I mentioned before that the Howard government has slashed $5 billion from our universities since 1996. Australia's public investment in universities is not only low by international standards; it has been falling, while in other countries public investment has increased. According to the OECD's report, Education at a glance: 2003, between 1995 and 2000, Australia's public investment in universities declined by 11 per cent—more than any other country in the OECD—with average OECD growth of 21 per cent. We are being left behind, while our international competitors are reaping the economic and social benefits of investing in tertiary education.

As a result of budget cuts and falling investment, our universities are struggling to perform at the highest possible standard. Overcrowded classrooms, infrastructure in serious disrepair and insufficient student resources are increasingly common features of our universities. Between 1996 and 2002, the number of students per teaching staff member blew out by over 31 per cent. At some institutions the increase has been more than 50 per cent. This gives rise to a lack of individual attention, fewer tutorials, bigger classes and compromised learning for too many of our young people.

The Howard government's higher education package contains one main policy: make students pay more. The government's answer to the crisis in higher education is: let us increase the burden on students and their families by hiking up fees and allowing more people to buy a university place. In contrast with that attitude, Labor will invest $2.34 billion—let me repeat that: 2.34 billion. Labor's policy—

Fran Bailey —It hasn't got a policy, has it?

Mr KELVIN THOMSON —If the parliamentary secretary listens, she will learn in the next few minutes Labor's policy in living colour. We will invest $2.34 billion in Australia's universities and TAFEs. Labor will improve the quality of university education through a new indexation measure that will deliver an additional $312 million to Australian universities between 2005 and 2007. Labor's policy—Aim Higher: Learning, Training and Better Jobs for More Australians—will give more Australians the skills and education they need for better job opportunities, better pay and better living standards. Under Labor, more people will get university qualifications at the highest possible standard and in a field that complements their needs and talents. We will target key areas of skills shortage such as teaching and nursing, relieve the financial burden on students and restore achievement as the primary criteria for access to university.

We will expand the opportunities to get a qualification by creating 20,000 new commencing full- and part-time university places and 20,000 new full- and part-time TAFE places. That means that by 2008 there will be 40,000 additional new commencing TAFE and university students in the system every year. That is a radical reform which will open up the university system. We want more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to share in the benefits of a tertiary qualification. We will provide $35 million for a program to support secondary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress to university or to TAFE.

We will restore merit as the primary criteria to achieve a university place and ensure that access to university remains affordable. We will abolish full fees for all new domestic undergraduate students. We will certainly oppose the government's plan to increase HECS as well as introduce a loans scheme with a six per cent interest rate. We want to relieve the financial burden on students and new graduates. We will extend rent assistance to Austudy recipients and reduce the age of independence for students on Youth Allowance to 24 in 2005 and to 23 in 2007. Labor will also increase the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000 per annum in 2004, relieving some of the burden on new graduates when they first enter the work force.

We want to address national skills shortages by reducing HECS fees for science and mathematics students by $1,600 per annum. We want to fund an additional 1,100 new commencing full- and part-time undergraduate nursing places and 500 additional new full-time HECS funded postgraduate nursing places every year from 2005. We stand for increased teaching places, increased teacher education places and more funding for clinical training for undergraduate nurses. Under Labor, to slow the brain drain and keep our best minds in Australia, there will be additional commencing full-time bonded medical places from 2005, and over $40 million to establish 300 three-year postdoctoral fellowship medical places each year from 2004.

Under the Howard government, too many talented young people have been missing out on a university place. Each year 20,000 qualified Australians miss out on studying at university. These are people who are capable, qualified and motivated to undertake tertiary education. Many of these Australians apply for teaching and nursing—areas where we need more and not less skilled professionals—but are not able to get in. This government is stopping thousands of Australians from realising their potential and gaining the skills and education they need for better job opportunities.

This government is not creating enough fully funded university places to even maintain current numbers for the next three years. Universities are being forced to cut around 8,000 HECS places by 2007 because the Howard government is not properly funding enough student places. Regrettably—and we will see it this year—thousands more school leavers will miss out on a university place over the next three years. I regret that, because a lot of Australian students who deserve better will not get the place they desperately want to get and have worked hard this year in the VCE and the other year 12 studies to get. After 2007 publicly funded places will not even keep pace with population growth. That means that, because of the Howard government, the proportion of Australians going to university will diminish.

As I said at the outset, Labor completely oppose the policies of the Howard government in relation to higher education. We stand for affordable higher education. We stand for nation building through increasing the skills, increasing the talent and increasing the qualifications of our best and brightest young people. They deserve better than this legislation and this government is giving them.